Public process forthcoming on Johnson lot

The Coupeville Chamber of Commerce proposed one possible use for the land at a town council meeting.

Coupeville elected officials decided during a town council meeting last week to initiate a public process to determine the best use for a downtown lot after the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce proposed one possible use for the land.

Chamber Executive Director Lynda Eccles and President Marcia Fakkema petitioned the town council during its June 13 public meeting to lease the town-owned Johnson lot, located between the Haller House and Cook’s Corner Park, to the chamber for the construction of a permanent location for the chamber headquarters and town visitor information center. The chamber currently operates out of the former fire house on Alexander Street.

Fakkema said the building would include a public restroom and meeting space for chamber members.

The chamber’s proposal to the council states that a permanent facility would allow the chamber to better support Coupeville businesses and improve visitors’ access to information about the town.

“I cannot think of a better location for the visitor center or the chamber,” Fakkema said, adding that it is critical the visitor center be located downtown. “I can envision visitors coming to Coupeville, driving down the hill and seeing the conveniently located, very visible access to the visitor center.”

Two public commenters at the meeting asked council members not to unilaterally decide the fate of the Johnson lot, but rather to loop in other town stakeholders and residents.

Lynn Hyde, executive director of Historic Whidbey, which owns the Haller House adjacent to the Johnson lot, said in a public comment that the town had first floated the idea of initiating a public discussion surrounding the lot early in 2022, when the Island County Historical Museum proposed that the museum use the lot for the construction of an archival facility.

When the museum found a different location for its project, however, the impetus to conduct that public process lost momentum, Hyde said.

“We are troubled by a continued lack of public process on visioning what will happen to the Johnson lot,” she said, later adding, “We’re here really to encourage the town council to initiate that process.”

She said the question is not whether the chamber’s proposal is a good one; but the chamber’s feasibility process would focus on whether the lot meets the chamber’s needs, while a public process would determine which use of the lot would most benefit the community.

At the time of the museum’s proposal, Historic Whidbey wrote a letter to the council suggesting the lot be left as a green space to preserve the viewshed and historic character of the area. The nonprofit’s suggested uses for the lot at the time included a welcome plaza for the historic district, a demonstration pioneer town garden, an interpretive native plant garden or a staging area for community events.

Council member Pat Powell said she was in favor of initiating a public process to determine how to use the lot when the previous mayor brought forth a private developer’s proposal before the council, an option the council decided not to pursue. She said she felt the same when the museum made its proposal last year, adding that the Johnson lot is the most critical of all the town’s properties in the downtown area.

Following the museum’s proposal last year, Mayor Molly Hughes created a form and procedure individuals or organizations could follow to propose uses for town-owned properties. This procedure does not include a public forum.

The council and mayor agreed to initiate a public process to determine how to best use the Johnson lot and asked the chamber to stand by for now. No formal action was taken at this meeting regarding the Johnson lot.